Monday, June 10, 2013

Going All Joe Friday

By now, I think we've established that I don't "do" vacations well.  I never know I'm supposed to be on vacation unless my husband tells me.  I simply can't vacate my life because writing pretty much defines me these days and to the point where I no longer feel as, well . . . sheepish when people ask what I do.  Until fairly recently, I always qualified: Well, I'm a child shrink.  Started out in surgery, went on to child psychiatry, and did prison work, too . . . but now I, uh . . . well, I write YA novels.  Today at a wedding reception and then a little later on at a high school graduation thingamabob, I flat-out said I was a writer.  No qualifiers, no explanations.  No feeling this need to apologize.  OTOH, I didn't even realize what I'd left unsaid until the husband pointed it out.

Now, for those of you who wonder why I might have felt a little embarrassed or sheepish or whatever . . . really, it's not that hard to understand.  I mean, for heaven's sake, I went to school for ten trillion years to become a doctor which is--let's face it--kind of a tough go.  In the early days of my gradual slide into full-time writer-dom, I felt like such a frigging fraud.  Everyone's working on or written or had an idea for a novel, right?  And I think that by saying I was a doc first and a wannabe writer way, way second, I was protecting myself from what I thought was inevitable failure--because I couldn't really do this; my stories were so damn bad--and trying to have it both ways: hanging onto a hard-won accomplishment and something that gave me an out just in case.  So it's only been very recently that I've given myself permission to be a writer.

I don't know if that still feels tenuous to me or not, but I've got a sneaking suspicion that it might.  I'm always thinking that all this could disappear tomorrow, or the books I've published must be a mistake, a fluke, a snafu on a cosmic level.  That, someday, someone's gonna wake up--DOH!--and realize that, no, no, there must be some mistake: that Bick character, she is outta here.

Perhaps that's why I have a hard time letting go of work this go-round.  Most writers are always writing, whether they're conscious of it or not.  They're amassing experiences, thinking of a plot point, planning the next scene, stuff like that.  My husband says he always knows when I'm not really in the room because I become monosyllabic if not completely ├╝ber-quiet.  (To some, I imagine that might be a relief.) 

This probably explains why these past couple of weeks in the UK have felt even less like a vacation than usual because I went for the express purpose not simply of researching the sequel to White Space, the first book in my new series set to appear next spring, but making like a human sponge: soaking up locale and ambience and period details.  Wherever I went, people were enormously helpful, and even more so when they found out that I was working on a novel (which, no, I didn't say; the husband would always blab).  I went all Joe Friday: just the facts, Ma'am.

The experience was all rather overwhelming, actually, just the sheer volume of it all.  I could feel myself trying to remember everything.  I filled up notebooks; I studied arcane books that librarians lugged from storage; I took scads of pictures; if Kodak were still in business, I could be a major share-holder.  Man, my mind got so stuffed with information, I could've sworn those tink-tinking sounds were facts dribbling from my ears to hit the floor.  I completely freaked myself out, thinking that, shit, I'll never remember all this.  Worse, I worry that I'll never assimilate all this material or get to the point where describing something isn't self-conscious. 

Like . . . you know . . . take turning on a light.  You just do it, right?  No one gives a rat's ass about the excitation of mercury vapor in a fluorescent bulb, and unless your story centers around a homicidal maniac who goes around poisoning folks with mercury fumes, who cares?  Unless the quality of the light is important to establishing place or situation, you don't worry about it.

But if you light a kerosene lamp, what's the quality of the light then?  What color?  How bright?  What do the shadows look like?  Is the light from whale oil the same, or different?  Would the color depend on the grade of whale oil?  Would burning whale oil have a scent and, if so, what kind?  Would that be the kind of sensory detail that would "place" a story? (Hint: the answer is yes.)

I remember the author of this one monster of an sf trilogy--we're talking years back--took a perfectly good story and completely ruined it by larding the narrative with so many facts the thing read like a treatise on rocket design, terraforming, and planetary ecology. I'm not kidding; every time I tried to read that thing, I'd glaze over.  My eyes would start to merge at the center of my forehead.  I'd think, Dude, I don't frigging care about the obliquity of the ecliptic

Now, though, and for the first time, I could appreciate why that guy and so many writers--even those with a ton of skill--might want to put all that knowledge down just to show you that, see, I know this, see?   When you've gone to that much trouble to immerse yourself in a period and place, it's only natural to want people to appreciate just how hard that is. 

A month ago, I tried plowing through an historical thriller by this very well-published, best-selling author.  In interviews, the guy said that the research for his book took about a year and man, it was clear that he wanted to make damn sure you knew--that, by God, you should appreciate--all those hours and days and weeks and months of effort he'd put into this thing.  That book was so larded with facts, the writing was stale, the words absolutely leaden.  I finally gave up about twenty pages in, when the second chapter actually started out with that kind of deathless dry prose that makes you want to stab your eyes out with a fork: In such and such a year, this and that was formed for the purpose of . . . zzzzzzz.


I know how that writer felt.  I also know what he forgot.

The best research is that which doesn't call attention to itself.  Facts need to melt seamlessly into narrative.  Facts give readers a sense of a place; verisimilitude makes a world.  But a collection of facts is not synonymous with story--unless you're Joe Friday.


Jordan Dane said...

Your husband stories always make me smile. The guy really pays attention. Love that.

I also loved this post. Your stream of consciousness style is fun to read. I'm glad you finally embraced your writing self. And I agree that ANY research needs to become the fabric of the story background, woven in subtlety, otherwise the author comes through too much, ad nauseum.

Ilsa said...

Ah, stream of consciousness . . . you're being kind. This is what comes of trying to blog while jet-lagged ;-)

Sechin Tower said...

Avoiding the "info dump" is always tough for writers, but I think especially SF writers. I always struggle with it,too!

One of the best things I've found is to give it time. If I try writing right after I research, it ends up being too much detail. But if I give it a while and let it sink it, it forms the bedrock that supports the story without being directly visible in most places. At least that's what I hope.